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Barbie and Oppenheimer At The Oscars: Why They Are Gender Binary Blockbusters

Barbie and Oppenheimer At The Oscars: Why They Are Gender Binary Blockbusters

With the Oscar Awards ceremony coming up, the pairing of the films, “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” is back in the spotlight with 13 nominations for “Oppenheimer” and eight for “Barbie.” It is time to reckon with the enduring power of the gender binary that “Barbieheimer” exhibits.

Perhaps the upcoming awards will reignite the memes, Barbieheimer  or Barbenheimer, which turned a commercial rivalry into a memorable – and highly marketable – double feature.

Whether you’re for or against it, thanks to the “Barbie” movie, the gender binary has become the pop culture faultline for feminism.

Classifying gender into two distinct forms – masculine and feminine – is how the gender binary works.  And everything about the “Barbie” movie reinforces that distinction. The script itself plots Barbie’s world along that axis. All the action, rebellion against it by Ken and friends included, maps onto the difference between men and women.

As a historian of gender, I study the way that binaries have shaped the understanding of men and women across many centuries. Gender binary structures affect fields of vision, training the eye on gender reversal as the answer to unequal power relations.

Flipping the script – getting women on top or reclaiming men’s lost dominance– is the driver of the plot here. And the essence of action and reaction in Barbiedom. It is debatable whether that’s really what feminism is about. And whether evidence of more fluid gender identities that lurk at the edges of the movie suggests an alternative.

But it’s hard to deny that the gender binary is alive and well: the uncredited star of “Barbie.”

Many people want to keep the gender binary in place. Some of them are weaponizing access to medical care and using legislation to police the apparently sacred male/female line. Recently the Ohio Senate reversed Governor DeWine’s veto on gender-affirming care. Transgender rights leaders are facing a slew of hostile legislative measures aimed at restricting everything from bathroom access to gender-transitioning services.

In an age of queer love and trans struggles, some may be nostalgic for heteronormative playfulness rooted in good old-fashioned gender binaries.  History shows that gender binaries aren’t rooted in nature.  They are socially constructed and produced to serve broader political and economic purposes.

In “Barbie” we are seeing the reproduction of the gender binary on the big screen as part of the Hollywood profit-making machine.

In her 2023 book, The Feminist Killjoy Handbook: The Radical Potential of Getting in the Way, author Sara Ahmed offers a recent history of the term and argues that it is most often used to silence complaints about how sexist jokes aren’t funny or to discount the fact that what makes some feel good may come at the cost of others.

By casting the gender binary and its reversals as the driver of the plot, the Barbie movie makes it that much harder to appreciate the negative impact that binary thinking can have on those who don’t or can’t identify with it.

Research based on data collected in a multinational study shows that gender nonconforming people reported suffering across several indicators of social well-being. Research also shows the negative implications of nonconformity for stress in particular and health in general.

To be sure, queer and trans practices are not beyond the gender binary. And nonbinary or nonconforming characters inhabit the margins of the movie, where they are no more or less caricatured than Ken and Barbie. But even when they shape the action, they are peripheral to the visual drama of men versus women and its perpetual cycles of reversal.

The same is true for Black and Brown characters. There’s no denying that America Ferrera’s monologue is a tear-jerker. But none of these multicultural plotlines get in the way of the pleasure of that flip-the-script recipe for liberation.

The clever “Barbieheimer” combo doubles down on the gender binary in order to suggest commercial rivalry.   That jokey mash-up diverts attention from something the two plots actually share. In both movies– the vantage point is American.

“Oppenheimer,” mainly shot in black and white, is the story of the triumph of white male-dominated U.S. military science. It all but blocks out the impact on the bomb on millions of Japanese killed in 1945 and the subsequent generations whose lives were shaped by that annihilation.

“Barbie,” proudly in pink, is surely a caricature of corporate America from home to office and back again. But there’s no question that audiences are invited to embrace the triumph of the American-made gender binary as a global, a universal, ideal: a more flexible, color-blind dollhood for the women and men of the world, manufactured by Mattel.

Historians will note that it’s the multi-cultural love for the gender binary on display as “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” head for the red carpet next month. Look for it, hiding in plain sight, in a sea of pink, blue, blond, black and white. It’s durable, and it’s made in the USA.

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